ECA: Definitions

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Early Christian Authority.

DefinitionThe great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero once said that “every argument about something which is rationally undertaken should proceed from a definition so that it is understood what is being disputed.”[1] The importance of clear definitions, however, has often been neglected by those studying early Christian conceptions of “scripture”, “tradition”, and “authority.” As this series on Early Christian Authority continues, over the next several weeks I will begin outlining the thought of (heretic) Marcion of Sinope. Before engaging Marcion, however, we must offer some tentative working definitions for these important terms. I say “tentative” and “working” because a) I expect the issue of clear definitions will be one that I return to, hopefully in greater depth, before too long and b) because my own thought on the definitions of these terms continues to be formed through the reading of secondary literature and my interactions with early Christian sources.

We shall begin with “scripture.” References to “scripture” should be taken to connote written texts viewed by at least some readers as authoritative, typically because of divine insight or authorship. The diversity of Christianities during this period should make it clear that references to “scripture” do not necessarily indicate references to written works now included in the sacred collections of Judaism or the Christian church.[2] That is, note everything we now view as “scripture” has always been viewed that way. Of course, this raises the question “When did scripture begin to be viewed as scripture?” Indeed, this is one of the questions I am wrestling with (along with it’s more abstract compatriot, “How do we know when scripture began to be viewed as scripture?”) and hope to find clarity (eventually).


Use of the term “tradition” should be understood as an indication of non-written materials circulating throughout the Christian communities of the Greco-Roman world. Though overly broad (I’m working on fine-tuning this idea), “tradition” may mean cultural mores, oral sayings, and/or actual practices, including (but not limited to) materials thought to be oral sayings traditions, rites or worship formulae, oral narrative accounts, or other faith influencing materials, either specifically Christian in origin or adopted by the Jesus Movement. These sources are often the hardest to pin down and are often presumed as something of a “least common denominator” linking writings with other sources, postulated, oral, lost, or otherwise.

References to “authority” should be understood to connote use of materials in a manner determining, adjudicating, or otherwise controlling or commanding the actions and perceptions of the Christian community. That is to say that authoritative writings and traditions should be understood as those sources which early Christians appealed to as their basis for influencing, allowing, or disallowing certain practices within the community. At some point there developed a clear “hierarchy” of authority, where some sources became functionally more important than other sources. This will become especially clear once I (finally) offer extended engagements with Marcion, Clement, Ignatius, Justin, Theophilus, and other early Christian writers.

Hopefully these definitions prove useful moving forward, if not as “fixed” dialogue points, then at least as a basis for crafting more finely tuned understandings of scripture, tradition, and authority in the context of Early Christian Authority.


[1] Cicero, On duties, 1.7.

[2] See Bart D. Ehrman in Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2003.), The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford University Press: New York, 1993.), and Lost Christianities (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2003).


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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